Category Archives: State of the Tentacle

State of the Tentacle: Sandy Petersen

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For the tenth installment of the “State of the Tentacle” interview series we are very pleased to be able to go aaaaaall the way back to the very source of Lovecraftian roleplaying by talking with the man who is responsible for it all, Sandy Petersen. While Sandy left the pen-and-paper gaming industry many years ago to become an incredibly successful video game designer, he still plays Call of Cthulhu regularly. Both because of his inside knowledge of the hobby’s genesis, and also because of his current interests in bringing Cthulhu back to the gaming table (albeit in a slightly different form), we were very eager to have Sandy along to chew the tentacle for a bit. Thankfully he agreed (even before we applied the mind control sorcery :-)).

Introduction

Sandy Petersen is someone whose work should really be very well known to every reader of this blog. But just in case you’ve accidentally stumbled upon this page while searching for knitting patterns or something, here’s a capsule summary of what Sandy has contributed to Lovecraftian gaming. In 1981 he was the original author of the Call of Cthulhu roleplaying game, adapting mechanics from Chaosium’s Basic Roleplaying System to deliver a frightening and erudite world in which gamers could roleplay investigators of arcane Lovecraftian horrors. sott-Montage-PetersenCoversThis was at a time when mainstream RPGs were little more than hack-and-slash dungeon crawls, so for a game to propose characters that were physically (and often mentally) frail fighting against odds that were likely to eventually overwhelm them … that was pretty radical. Some would say that it still is.

Sandy remained at Chaosium for the next seven years, acting as both a key writer for Call of Cthulhu and editor of the line. During that period many of the titles that are still regarded as unrivalled classics of the game were published — including the Masks of Nyarlathotep and Shadows of Yog-Sothoth campaigns and the alternate Modern-day, Gaslight and Dreamlands settings. In fact, pretty much every Lovecraftian product released by Chaosium between 1981 and 1989 has Sandy’s fingerprints all over it in some form or other.

Sandy left the world of pen-and-paper gaming, lured to the world of computer games (which was, in some ways, still in its infancy). His first job in this heady industry was with Microprose where he worked on Darklands, Hyperspeed, and even Civilization. He then moved on to a small company called id Software that was just about to launch a first-person shooter called “Doom” that was kind of a horror-story set in space. Sandy brought quite a significant amount of Cthulhu-oid madness to the monsters and levels of Doom, and later applied that to the worlds of Quake. The rest, as they say, is history. But these are but a handful of the highlights of Sandy’s extraordinary gaming credits. He also worked for Ensemble Studios and was a key designer on such genre-defining titles as the Age of Empires series, and Halo Wars.

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On the success of this career, Sandy also spent two years teaching game design to graduate students at Southern Methodist University.

At present, Sandy is again back in the world of hands-on game design. He is a partner in a small startup firm preparing a Lovecraftian-themed boardgame for Kickstarter funding. If the Kickstarter campaign isn’t already active by the time you read this … it will be soon! The game is titled Cthulhu Wars, and it has received rave reviews from playtesters … some folks saying that it is the best thing Sandy has done since Call of Cthulhu. And it’s easy to see why, judging from the initial photos that have been released of the game board and the monstrous miniatures (montaged below … but click on the link above to see more).

As they say … Watch the Skies!

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Cthulhu Reborn: With over three decades of history to Lovecraftian Roleplaying, what do you see as the key milestones and mis-steps that have been made during its evolution?

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Sandy: It might sound self-serving, but the obvious key milestone was the publication of Call of Cthulhu – there really wasn’t any horror gaming before then, and not only was this horror-based, but it was honest-to-goodness Lovecraft, at least as I misunderstood it at the time (I was only 26!).

I think the next big milestone was the development of video graphics and sound to the point that a digital game could be made that was genuinely frightening. This was a gradual process, but certainly by 1993, there were games that creeped people out.

The third important development was the creation of tabletop card & boardgames that successfully channelled Lovecraft. The most obvious success is the Arkham Horror game, but there are others.

Another important step has been the spread of the Lovecraft influence into other genres. There are lots of games nowadays which, while not explicitly Cthulhu Mythos-based, obviously are under the shadow of the Man from Providence.

sott-lucca-cult-cthulhuAnd one of the biggest upcoming improvements I believe to be the continued expansion of Lovecraft LARPs [Live-Action Role Playing games]. While I have played in, and written, several of these, my trip to the Italian Lucca game convention last year was a real eye-opener. Those Italians are hard-core – EVERYONE in the LARP was in full 1930s costume (including Italian police in what looked to me like fascist uniforms, women with fake mink stoles, you name it). They had even hired a live band to play dance music! The culmination of the evening was a guy wearing a complete Mi-Go “costume” coming out of the night to annihilate the other gamers – he had to walk on stilts for his hands & legs, and even had a voice-box changer to make weird insect-like noises. Must have cost a fortune. The guy who invited me to this told me that in an earlier LARP he ran, his job was to lay sprawled out, a bullet-wound in his head, throughout the four hours of the game. Shades of SAW. Those Italians left me in awe.

Sandy delivering a Masterclass at the Lucca Comics & Games Convention

I think the biggest mistake in Lovecraft gaming is the tendency for many designers to try to transform the players into some sort of “special agent” or super-skilled person with access to tools and techniques far beyond the grasp of we mere mortals. Horror, by its nature, needs to be seen to affect normal humans. In retrospect, looking back at my 26-year old self, I salute him for seeing the need to have the investigators be Jes’ Folks – not government spooks, or privately-funded mercenaries, but doctors, private eyes, and the like.

CR: Given the many and varied publishers and product lines that exist in 2013 to support the hobby, what things do you think this “mini-industry” is doing well and what could be done better?

Sandy: I think the more variety that is offered players in game systems, miniature figures, toys, and fun stuff, the better it is for the entire hobby. I am constantly thrilled when I see something new in this field.

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CR: What do you see as the main factors shaping the direction of Lovecraftian RPGs right now?

Sandy: You got me, pal. For roleplaying Lovecraft, I pretty much just play Call of Cthulhu. After all, it is, in effect, my own “house rules”. And learning a new roleplaying system hasn’t been attractive to me since my college days.

<in the voice of the Frankenstein Monster> “Change bad!”

CR: What do you see as the main challenges currently facing the continued prosperity/growth of the hobby?

Sandy: The tendency for humor to start taking over Lovecraftian themes. Look – the Mythos is obviously easy to make fun of (as is all horror). And that is not a bad thing. But I think it would be sad if Cthulhu becomes more of a comedy figure than a terrifying one.

CR: If it was up to you, where would you like to see the product lines of Lovecraftian RPGs (whether it’s the games themselves or their support products) go next?

Sandy: I want to see Halloween costumes. Get with it, guys.

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CR: Hypothetically, if you were to gaze into a crystal ball and look five years into the future of the hobby, what do you expect you’d see had changed in that time?

Sandy: I think that the game will spread to far more use of Skype-like resources, with people playing over distances. Cthulhu fans tend to be more mature than typical RPGers, and so we are frequently married, with careers and lives, rather than college kids living in a dorm. As a result, we are scattered far and wide, and it is physically harder for us to get together for our Lovecraft gaming fix. Technology is just now able to solve this problem, and I’m happy about it. Now old friends who live hundreds, even thousands of miles away, will be able to get together to play games.

Maybe there will even be a MMORPG [Massive Multiplayer Online Roleplaying Game] based on Call of Cthulhu one day. That is a holy grail worth waiting for.

CR: Thanks for your time, Sandy! Are you willing to come back and answer a few follow-up questions?

Sandy: You bet!

[ If there’s something you would like us to quiz Sandy about when we catch up with him again for a follow-up interview, either leave them as comments to this post, PM them user “dce” on either YSDC or rpg.net or email them to questions AT cthulhureborn.com ]


State of the Tentacle: Scott David Aniolowski

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Hot on the heels of our recent brush with Mr Kenneth Hite (and his twitter-loving cult of followers :-)), we are pleased to be able to present yet ANOTHER big name for the “State of the Tentacle” interviews. Today, Scott David Aniolowski has fallen into the clutches of one of the Lesser Servitor Races that we always keep around Cthulhu Reborn central just to keep the tentacle grass down. You would have thought that Scott — the man who wrote the very book on Call of Cthulhu monsters (Malleus Monstrorum) — might have spotted the tell-tale signs: stench of rotting flesh, dripping ichor, putrescent liquifying fleshy tendrils. Maybe he mistook the beast for a Hollywood starlet after one too many cosmetic procedures? Who knows … but we consider ourselves very fortunate that we were able to snag Scott and extract this most excellent confession .. er .. interview before he was able to break free of his chains!

Introduction

Scott David Aniolowski is one of the Grand Old Gents of Call of Cthulhu (or allegedly one of “The Great Old Ones” according to some young upstarts!), having first been published by Chaosium in 1986. That makes him the longest-published CoC designer still (occasionally) writing for the game. He has written dozens of scenarios, articles and books for CoC and is probably best known as the author of Chaosium’s acclaimed book of Cthulhu Mythos monsters The Malleus Monstrorum. Over the many years of his game designing, Scott has produced work for Chaosium, Pagan Publishing, Miskatonic River Press (MRP) and Triad Entertainments (and possibly a few other brand new publishers who have queried him about working for their imprint). He has had the pleasure of working with iconic CoC designers and editors Sandy Petersen, Keith Herber, Lynn Willis, Kevin Ross and John Tynes, and has assembled and edited books of his own for various publishers.

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Scott has also been active in fiction, his short stories and poems having been published by Chaosium, MRP, Barnes & Noble, PS Publishing and various magazines and other publishers. He has edited several fiction anthologies, including Made in Goatswood, Singers of Strange Songs, Horror for the Holidays and others.

Scott is an Executive Chef by vocation, an Anglophile, “Ripperologist”, fan of all things Victorian, insatiable bibliophile, horror/weird/dark fiction enthusiast and author/poet, diehard new wave and punk fan, lifelong bigfoot geek, and student of Chinese cuisine, culture and language. Scott is a collector of jack o’lanterns and bigfoot movies, and works extensively to restore his old Colonial home (“The House of Secrets”) to its former original period splendour. Scott’s blog, “Whispers from the House of Secrets,” where he blathers on about writing, rails against the mundane world, waxes nostalgic and otherwise makes noise can be found at: http://scottdavidaniolowski.blogspot.com/

CthulhuReborn: With over three decades of history to Lovecraftian Roleplaying, what do you see as the key milestones and mis-steps that have been made during its evolution?

Scott: Well, certainly milestones would be the releases of such classic and literally game-changing products as Pagan’s Delta Green and Chaosium’s fan favourites, the BIG campaigns such as Masks of Nyarlathotep and Horror on the Orient Express. Personally, I’m not a fan of any of that stuff but the buying public sure are, and at the end of the day that’s pretty much all that counts from a business point of view. Campaigns – even shorter ones – fly against the intrinsic theme of Lovecraft’s work that mankind is but a speck in an uncaring universe, powerless to affect any real changes on the true Powers that froth and caper just out of our sight. Grand adventures to save mankind – and I’ve been a part of some campaign designing, so I’m not throwing stones here – bring to mind more the pulp adventures of the 1940’s than Lovecraft’s nihilistic worldview. If you look at Lovecraft’s bigger “adventures” – “The Shadow Over Innsmouth,” “At the Mountains of Madness,” “The Shadow Out of Time,” etc. – the protagonists may have saved themselves (usually at the cost of their own sanity), but they didn’t really save mankind because in the end those blasphemous secrets are still out there just waiting patiently to rise up again. But from a purely gaming point of view, big campaigns can be great fun and offer the chance to explore Indiana Jones-style in far-off and exotic locations, so I totally understand their appeal. Who doesn’t love that sort of stuff?

As for the Delta Green milieu, I can’t say much about it as I haven’t been involved in any of that as either a game designer or a player, but what I’ve seen and read of the material is quite good and offers a completely different style of play for CoC fans. Interestingly, I know that John (Tynes) and gang had the idea and the start of their Delta Green universe before X-Files came on the scene, so for those who always assumed X-Files inspired Delta Green let me set the record straight [indeed “Convergence”, the scenario which introduced the idea of Delta Green was published in The Unspeakable Oath Issue 7, a full year before X-Files premiered – CR]. Something I really like about Delta Green is that it provides a modern world for investigators to adventure in; Chaosium’s Cthulhu Now didn’t really have a distinct voice of its own and never created that world – it was pretty much just standard 1920’s Call of Cthulhu with some modern technology and themes thrown in to make it “modern” (but is now mostly very dated because it lacked its own unique voice).

Now, missteps are another whole matter. I don’t know as you can point to any particular Lovecraftian product and call it a misstep as that’s all a matter of personal taste. There are products which I loathe and think are just terrible, but to call them missteps would be unfair as that’s just my own personal opinion. The true missteps have been in the business handling of particular companies, and to get into specifics of that is to open up a rather large can of worms. Let me just say that certain companies have a longstanding reputation for having very poor business practices and have sadly driven away some very talented authors and artists.

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The only specific project I will refer to when speaking of missteps is a proposed new [7th Edition] version of Call of Cthulhu. I was part of a hand-picked cabal of CoC designers chosen by Chaosium and the authors to read and review the manuscript, and we pretty much all came away very unhappy with the bulk of what was being proposed. I see it as too radical a departure from the basic, well-honed and well-loved BRP CoC rules, and foresee it creating a split in CoC fans – those who will endorse and play the new rules and those who will loyally stay with the existing ruleset. Such a division is not what a small sub-genre of an already shrinking hobby needs. The proposed changes over-complicate much of the rules, which has always been CoC’s charm, in that the game system fades quietly into the background without a lot of dice rolling, number crunching and rule referencing. In fairness to the authors, however, it was obvious to us all that they spent a great deal of time and put a lot of thought into their material. After the cabal’s comments the authors were going to take another look at their manuscript and make adjustments. I do not know where it stands presently as we have not been updated at this point.

CR: Given the many and varied publishers and product lines that exist in 2013 to support the hobby, what things do you think this “mini-industry” is doing well and what could be done better?

Scott: I can’t really comment on much of anything outside of the Call of Cthulhu game, as I don’t follow the other systems, but I think Chaosium’s recent licensing deals with various and sundry new upstart publishers is a good thing as it brings in lots of new blood with fresh ideas and perspectives. I haven’t liked all of what these new guys have done, but some of them have produced some exceptional products. I think the late Keith Herber’s Miskatonic River Press rises to the top of the crowd and has produced unquestionably the best licensed CoC material in the past several years. RPG output there has slowed nearly to a stop, however, and it looks like the company is moving more into fiction production, so we’ll see what the future holds for CoC at MRP. But there are new Lovecraft/Cthulhu gaming publishing houses cropping up all the time and I anticipate, knowing many of the people involved, good things.

I think one thing that could be done better is supporting new lines and CoC setting books. Historically, new setting books come out and then are either never supported with another product, or the support comes a very long time later. I think the best way to do something like that is to release your new setting book and immediately follow it up with a book of scenarios. If that proves successful follow it with a campaign and perhaps a companion to gather and add new rules, occupations, monsters, villains, etc. to the particular setting. Chaosium, for example, has never really done much to support either the Dreamlands setting (although ironically, that book has been reprinted a number of times and had several updated editions) or their Gaslight era book (or Invictus or Dark Ages….). Fellow-dinosaur and Elder Statesman of CoC, Kevin Ross wrote, assembled and edited a series of Colonial America CoC setting books (and a Western CoC line, incidentally) for a licensee which includes the core setting sourcebook, a book of scenarios, and a campaign. That’s how it should be done… although when or if that material will ever actually be published is another question long waiting to be answered.

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One recentish development that I really dislike is Chaosium’s line of monographs. These books are produced wholly by the author and Chaosium only publishes the material as they receive it, with no editing, layout or other professional assistance provided. This has resulted in a hodge-podge of material varying from horrible and amateurish to darn-near professional and everything in between. I’m sure it’s a thrill for new authors and nascent game designers to produce (or sometimes cobble together) their own books and see them in print, unfortunately it’s rather analogous to the self-publishing craze which has been glutting the market with sub-par, near-illiterate dribble. If Chaosium or any other professional company is going to publish something and put their name on it then they should take the time to ensure the material gets a look from editorial and layout people so that the product is worthy of what their customers have come to expect from them. Producing and selling sub-par books looks bad for any company, even if it is understood that it is basically a do-it-yourself self-publishing deal.

CR: What do you see as the main factors shaping the direction of Lovecraftian RPGs right now?

Scott: Undoubtedly it’s the newfound popularity and recognisability of Cthulhu. The big guy has reached the celebrity status of some unscrupulous and smarmy reality tv “star.” Twenty-odd years ago when I was a fledgling CoC designer I would have never thought that I would see the day when Cthulhu and Lovecraft were pop culture icons, appearing on everything from the once-scandalous South Park to the angsty Supernatural and all manner of shows in between. Where in the 1970’s and 1980’s finding Lovecraftian/Mythos material was like a glorious and elusive treasure hunt, today one just has to browse through the local comic or book shop to find numerous mentions of HPL and his cosmic sprattlings. And the explosive bloom of Mythos anthologies, collections and novels is mind-numbing; I clearly remember a time not so very long ago when most book and magazine submission guidelines specifically said “NO LOVECRAFT/CTHULHU STORIES.” The day was when you would mention “Lovecraft” or “Cthulhu” and people would look at you oddly and you would grin knowingly, but now you can’t swing a cat without hitting some self-proclaimed Lovecraft fan (or worse, “Lovecraft scholar”) or Mythos aficionado. It’s crazy! And not in the good, drooling from mind-blasted insanity way! Maybe I’m just an old curmudgeon unhappy that his special little private club has opened its doors to the public? It just seems that the wider the popularity spreads the more watered down and inane the whole thing gets.

So, with the newfound popularity of all things Lovecraft comes a melding of modern ideas and technology into the Mythos, and we’re seeing Cthulhutechy things and Cthulhu anime and other new sub-genres inspired by modern culture. Cthulhu, in his own little way, has become a pop culture icon. Some think it’s great and have made a name for themselves with it, which I certainly don’t begrudge. Others are less enthusiastic, like my old pal Kevin Ross who likes to say “don’t y’all think this Lovecraft shit has done got out of hand?” Pushed to take a side, I think I’d have to agree with Kevin.

CR: What do you see as the main challenges currently facing the continued prosperity/growth of the hobby?

Scott: Well, the hobby itself is in danger of extinction just because games in general have moved from the table top and into the computer. In an impatient video generation imagination and personal interaction has taken a back seat to instant gratification on screen either alone or with an unseen stranger on the other side of the globe. The monsters and gore are all displayed in glorious on-screen colour and details so that the player doesn’t have to think for himself and imagine what it all must be like. It makes me sad: nothing any computer graphics designer creates can match what I see in my mind’s eye. But then I pre-date the computer age by several centuries (see “curmudgeon,” above!), so my tastes tend to be for things of a bygone age.

CR: If it was up to you, where would you like to see the product lines of Lovecraftian RPGs (whether it’s the games themselves or their support products) go next?

Scott: As I mentioned elsewhere, I think product lines should be developed and supported. I would love to see more Gaslight era material, both scenarios or campaigns and more source material. I think the British Empire needs to be addressed in a Victorian setting. Although not a big fan of the Dreamlands, it would be fun to see more Dreamland adventuring. This I always saw as Chaosium’s chance to take a little bite out of the Sword and Sorcery/AD&D market with Cthulhu. I can see Dreamlands making a name for itself as heroic fantasy adventuring in the right hands and taken in the right direction. Of course, I’m very impatiently waiting to see the Colonial era CoC material see print, and I think that will be an exciting new stage for players who love history and Mythos investigation.

Something I would also love to see (and to be a part of) would be CoC source material for other author’s worlds. Clark Ashton Smith is the most obvious one, as he had several fantastic realms and worlds in which he wrote: Hyperborea, Mars, Averoigne, Zothique, etc. A two-fisted pulpy Robert E. Howard book could supply more action-oriented CoC gaming. Of course, I did a Ramsey Campbell book several years ago, and have always wanted to return to Ramsey’s creations. There has long been talk of me doing a more Lovecraft Countrified book set in Campbell Country in the default CoC 1920’s era. That is what I had originally pitched and what ultimately became Ramsey Campbell’s Goatswood and Less Pleasant Places, a modern campaign. I’ve never been really happy with that one and would love to go back to Ramsey’s haunted Severn Valley and do what I had originally set out to do.

Also, I’d love to see some of the original books produced by the foreign licensees translated into English. The Germans, particularly, have an awful lot of original material that non-German speaking gamers are missing out on. And although it’s a matter of debate and personal preferences, I think the foreign editions tend to look a lot nicer than the American ones. I’m not a fan of the wholesale replacement of existing artwork with photographs, but I do think adding period photos into the mix (while retaining the original art) is a really nice touch.

Beyond that, I think just producing quality material is the way to go to ensure a future for CoC and Lovecraftian games.

CR: Hypothetically, if you were to gaze into a crystal ball and look five years into the future of the hobby, what do you expect you’d see had changed in that time?

Scott: The hobby itself I expect to have shrunken in five years. It’s a sad truth that as technology advances table top RPGs just aren’t as popular as computer and video games. Dead tree publishing in general is not in the best of health: “print is dead” and all of that twaddle. As for CoC, unless someone does something monumentally stupid or there’s some cataclysmic shake-up, I don’t see as it will be much different than it is today. The game has survived pretty much unchanged since 1981, so barring a tragically radical new edition, I don’t foresee any great changes.

CR: Thanks, Scott! Are you willing to stick around and answer a few follow-up questions?

Scott: OK


A Second Lash at: Gareth Ryder-Hanrahan

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A month back we were fortunate enough to interview Gareth Ryder-Hanrahan (chief Laundrarian and writer of some nifty Trail of Cthulhu material also). Since then he has become father to a pair of twins … Now you’d think that this would be enough to keep any sane person have pretty much occupied for every waking moment. But not Gareth: not only has he just signed on to write a bunch of stuff for a cool-sounding (recently-finished) Kickstarter, but he has kindly agreed to come back for a quick follow-up interview. The man is unstoppable!

CR: Call of Cthulhu and Trail of Cthulhu are fairly atypical game lines in that unlike most their published support material is extremely heavily weighted towards “ready-to-run” scenarios/campaigns rather than rules expansions or source material. Do you think that bias is driven by what followers of those games will buy? Or are publishers missing out on opportunities to sell different types of books in addition to scenarion anthologies?

sott-achtung-antarcticaGareth: To a degree, that’s an artefact of the structure of the game. The player characters are ordinary people; the setting is the real world, more or less, and it’s hard to provide information about the Mythos without bludgeoning the mystery to death with concrete facts. You might get away with a book on, say, Ghouls or Deep Ones or Arkham or Antarctica, but not The Complete Guide to Elder Things or a Rlyeh setting book. Lovecraftian gaming is about singular moments of revelation, not a deep exploration of setting. Fear comes from wondering what’s behind that shadowed door, so you’ve got to leave shadows.

I think there’s scope for other material – I’ll point to Stealing Cthulhu, for example – but it has to be done very carefully in order to keep the mystery.

CR: You mention the Call of Cthulhu character creation rules as being slow, and perhaps a barrier to entry for players who just want a “quick fix”. Do you have any thoughts on ways in which they might be streamlined? Alternative optional chargen rules for “instant gratification” gamers?

Gareth: Pregenerated or partially pregenerated characters are an easy solution. Have a set of Lovecraftian investigator archetypes – the Antiquarian, the Private Detective, the Dilettante and so on – with most of their stats and skills precalculated. Let the player spend a few points on skills to customise the character, maybe have a bunch of background hooks and character quirks to pick from, and off you go.

Cthulhu characters tend to be pretty bland by design, anyway. They’re ordinary people at the start – it’s their decisions and experiences in the game (and horrible fates) that make them memorable, not their backstories.

CR: Regarding the inexorable move toward PDF-only electronic publishing, how receptive do you think the current gamer community is to the thought of entirely abandoning “dead-tree” versions of their products? Looking at current Kickstarters, it seems that the majority of the backers still want to buy printed books … but how practical do you think that is that in a world where international shipping is getting expensive? Are people just going to have to get used to the idea of electronic-only releases?

Gareth: The rise of Print-on-Demand means that there’ll always be physical books for those who want them, and while they’ll certainly be expensive, especially with the rising cost of shipping, I still think roleplaying works out as a moderately cheap hobby if you’re actually playing with the books. Say a new prestige-format rulebook costs me $100 – if I run a 10-session campaign with that book, and each session is four hour’s long, then that’s a reasonable $2.50 an hour for my entertainment.

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I think it’ll fall into physical books for collecting, pdfs for reading. Books or pdfs-on-tablet for play, depending on your tastes.

CR: Thank you so much for making the time to come back! Now … go get some sleep, man! 🙂


State of the Tentacle: Kenneth Hite

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Four the eighth installment of the “State of the Tentacle” interview series we have the rare privilege of welcoming to our non-Euclidean temple one of the most accomplished writer/game designer in the tabletop roleplaying industry, Kenneth Hite. While it is true that he fought desperately to escape from our musty gothic belfry before darkness fell upon our Shining Trapezohedron® his efforts were ultimately thwarted by the simple expediency of us having tied his shoelaces together while he was unconscious … or some other blatantly implausable plot device from the pulps 🙂

Introduction

Kenneth has written and designed an insanely large number of game books for an insanely diverse array of roleplaying games. Only some of those books have themselves been insane … but insane in a very, very good way. I am not even going to attempt to summarize his 20 years of game writing in the space we have here, but if you are interested in reading more you can check out the database of Kenneth’s design credits over on RPG Geek (but be warned, it is split over *11 pages* of entries).

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In the worlds of Cthulhu gaming, Kenneth is no slouch either. By metrics that man-was-not-meant-to-understand, he is credited as the author of:

about the Cthulhu Mythos.

For many years he wrote a much-loved column called “Suppressed Transmissions” for Pyramid magazine in which he brought his formidable knowledge of history, folklore and weird-science to bear on the tasks facing Gamemasters in producing new and interesting environments for their games. Although not specifically written with Lovecraftian games in mind, these articles frequently were peppered (and sometimes more than peppered) with a veritable goldmine of crunchy and usable ideas which an imaginative Cthulhu Keeper could use to spawn a whole series of games. Fortunately for those of us who don’t subscribe to Pyramid Magazine, Steve Jackson Games published two collections of the best articles from this long-running column — Suppressed Transmissions: the First Broadcast and Suppressed Transmissions: the Second Broadcast.

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Besides all that, he also currently writes the “Lost in Lovecraft” column in Weird Tales magazine, and has also written 70 or so books and games that barely touch on Cthulhu at all. He blogs at http://princeofcairo.livejournal.com.

In November, 2012 Pelgrane announced that they had successfully wooed Kenneth to take up a full time position heading up the Trail of Cthulhu line and also writing more support material for his vampire spy thriller game Night’s Black Agents.

In the real world Kenneth lives in Chicago with two Lovecraftian cats and one non-Lovecraftian wife.

Cthulhu Reborn: With over three decades of history to Lovecraftian Roleplaying, what do you see as the key milestones and mis-steps that have been made during its evolution?

Kenneth: The greatest milestone remains the first: Sandy Petersen’s seminal, path-breaking, elegant, incisive design of Call of Cthulhu. Without Sandy’s design, Lovecraftian roleplaying would have been stillborn – can you imagine a Lovecraftian game descended from the Deities & Demigods write-ups? After that, comes the general slow revolution and pioneering of scenario design work, from the “deadly sandbox” of Larry DiTillio and Lynn Willis’ Masks of Nyarlathotep to the still-underutilized “troupe of meatshields” model of Keith Herber and Kevin Ross’ Escape From Innsmouth to the recent “Purist-style” existential suicides of Graham Walmsley’s Lake District cycle. The other seminal milestone along the path was John Tynes, Scott Glancy, and Dennis Detwiller’s Delta Green, which demonstrated how much other modern horror (conspiracies and body horror specifically) could be super-charged with the Mythos in gaming, and showed how to do it masterfully. Nobody’s had the balls to really do that outright for another horror genre, although Eclipse Phase gets close in places and there are a number of more or less adequate “space Lovecraft” games now. Tynes, Glancy, and Detwiller also potentially revolutionized setting description (not just for the Mythos but for all RPGs) in their half of the d20 Call of Cthulhu project.

In straight game-design terms, I think I tried to do justice to Robin Laws’ brilliant reconceptualization of the investigation and mystery genres in my Trail of Cthulhu for Robin’s GUMSHOE engine. Maybe my splitting of Sanity from Stability is worth noting, too. Robert MacLoughlin’s Cthulhu Live is apparently an underrated design; I’m not a LARPer, but my friends who are praise it. Although I differed with many of Monte Cook’s specific decisions, his d20 Call of Cthulhu rules did about as well as anything could to bolt level-and-XP gaming onto the Mythos, and opened up a lot of possibilities in quasi-Mythos settings like Freeport and the Scarred Lands. Geoffrey McKinney’s Carcosa is another approach to that blend, which shows great promise. I have similar hopes for Sean Preston’s tremulus, which should complete our riffing Cthulhu gaming off the 1970s at last while pointing the way to more design options for the future.

Mis-steps – like I said up above, we avoided the biggest one when Chaosium, not TSR, did the first Lovecraft RPG. We all wish Chaosium hadn’t nearly drowned itself in debt, and could have kept as close an eye on their premiere product line as it deserved, but that’s not really a mis-step on the evolutionary path of Lovecraftian roleplaying. I’m a little surprised that there hasn’t been an A-list designer in the new generation try a Lovecraftian story game from the ground up: I’m talking Luke Crane, Vincent Baker, Paul Czege, Emily Care Boss or someone of their calibre and vintage. (Ron Edwards did a terrific “Northwest Smith” RPG in S/Lay w/Me, but that doesn’t quite count as Lovecraftian; Michael Oracz’ De Profundis was terrific but seems to have sunk without a trace.) But again, a step not (yet?) taken isn’t a mis-step either. Sharks haven’t evolved much for 90 million years, but they’ll still chomp your arm off.

CR: Given the many and varied publishers and product lines that exist in 2013 to support the hobby, what things do you think this “mini-industry” is doing well and what could be done better?

Kenneth: The single biggest thing that this mini-industry is doing well is yet another thing Chaosium is doing well: by relaxing the terms for their license, they allow a hundred game-design flowers to bloom. However, just like the first bloom of the d20 license, sott-cthulhu-flowerthe gardeners seem fairly timid. Right now, the vast majority of these products seem to be mostly in the “what we always wanted Chaosium to do” realm – Cthulhu in WW2, licensing other Mythos writers like Charlie Stross, Cthulhu with giant robots, etc. – or the “Chaosium’s game now in another rules set” realm rather than trying to think about what will make Lovecraftian roleplaying compelling going forward into the new millennium.

I should emphasize that my work on Trail of Cthulhu partakes of both those conservative flavors: I’m developing books I always wanted Chaosium to do (Bibliophile Cthulhu! Thirties Cthulhu!), using Robin’s GUMSHOE rules set. To the extent that “the mini-industry” is holding back, so am I. And I hope that example indicates that, like Lovecraft, I don’t see anything wrong with conservatism in design! Jason Durall and Gareth Hanrahan’s Laundry RPG, for example, is excellent, and has some of the best adventures ever written for Lovecraftian RPGs, but it’s nobody’s idea of cutting edge.

CR: What do you see as the main factors shaping the direction of Lovecraftian RPGs right now?

Kenneth: In addition to Chaosium’s generous (and apparently wise) licensing decision I mention above, the other main factor shaping Lovecraftian RPGs – like it shapes the rest of the RPG design space – is Kickstarter, and crowdfunding in general. This, I think, tends to reinforce those two conservative trends I mentioned before: it’s always easier to get people’s money for the loved and familiar.

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I’d like to say that the indie half of the current Golden Age of RPG design was influencing the direction of Lovecraftian RPGs, but tremulus and Graham Walmsley’s interestingly minimalist Cthulhu Dark aside, it really doesn’t seem to be doing so (although Cynthia Celeste Miller’s Dread-influenced Macabre Tales is another example). Right now, it’s new design ideas from “trad” designers (especially Robin Laws, but I suspect Monte’s d20 Call of Cthulhu rules are more influential than people think) that seem to be moving the needle, to the extent it’s moving.

CR: What do you see as the main challenges currently facing the continued prosperity/growth of the hobby?

Kenneth: The main challenge to Lovecraftian RPGs is the same as the challenge to RPGs (and perhaps all publishing and broadcasting) in general: how to continue the transition from a mass entertainment model (albeit a smaller one, in our case) to a craft entertainment model. sott-funded-with-kickstarterAs retail continues to deform under Internet competition, and as the old ways of distribution continue to collapse, the economic assumptions of publishers, designers, and gamers all come under real strain. At some point, the architecture will exist to allow point-to-point sale by creators of creative goods to anyone in the world, but whether that architecture will support a “game line” or even an RPG in the fashion we grew up on is another question. Tabletop RPGs, of course, also face increased niche competition (for free time even more than for dollars) from electronic games of all sorts, although virtual “tabletop” platforms mitigate this to some extent.

This, of course, is aside from the generational lag that’s (to one or another level) hobbling all the advanced economies in the world. If we can get folks in India and Africa reading Lovecraft (not an easy sale, I admit), or get RPGs into retirement communities, maybe we can dodge that bullet for another decade or two.

The other potential big obstacle in the road would be someone with deeper pockets closing off Cthulhu at the tap. While H.P. Lovecraft’s work is public domain, there’s enough shadows and fog there that a Disney or Time Warner (or even a farcical “Lovecraft estate”) could make it impossible to publish Cthulhu mythos work. Trademark abuse could strangle us – the core tales of Edgar Rice Burroughs and Robert E. Howard are both clearly in the public domain, but just try to market something with the word “Tarzan” or “Conan” in the title and see how far you get. Right now, someone is suing the Conan Doyle estate over their claim of exclusive rights to a character invented in 1886! Multinational IP law reform is clearly needed, and is just as clearly not happening any time soon.

Finally, just as Chaosium’s two good decisions have created and fertilized the Lovecraftian RPG scene, a bad Chaosium decision that forks or breaks the audience of Call of Cthulhu could hurt it. The mooted 7th edition of the rules will mark the biggest change to Sandy’s original design ever; even if the new design is a good one, faulty marketing or licensing decisions around it could badly damage our tentacled little market segment. You only have to look at the slipshod way Wizards handled the 3.5e to 4e D&D transition to see what’s at stake, and Chaosium has less running room (and starts with fewer advantages) than Wizards did.

CR: If it was up to you, where would you like to see the product lines of Lovecraftian RPGs (whether it’s the games themselves or their support products) go next?

Kenneth: To some extent, it is up to me, in that I’ll be writing (and possibly commissioning) more books for Trail of Cthulhu and co-writing the upcoming Delta Green RPG. So apparently, what I’d like to see is more historically informed setting and adventure material that inspires and terrifies gamers while being accessible to them, and a Delta Green that feels like part of the 21st century’s politics, economics, and horror.

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Aside from that, I’d really like to see more top-flight indie designers take on Lovecraft’s original fiction and mythology from the ground up. It’s understandable to feel like you’ll always be in Sandy Petersen’s shadow, but people kept writing plays after Shakespeare.

CR:Hypothetically, if you were to gaze into a crystal ball and look five years into the future of the hobby, what do you expect you’d see had changed in that time?

sott-fiascoKenneth: I think the most likely future in almost any context is “more of the same.” Real change isn’t very common, and we’re still in the middle of our era’s real change, the Web-shifted economy. The changes to the RPG hobby and industry because of that macro-change will swamp any artistic turns unless a real bolt-of-lightning game like Fiasco reshapes the design field. For example, if a next-generation (modular-encounter, idiot-proof) virtual tabletop gaming platform really takes off and dominates the hobby, its Cthulhoid skin is likely to be more influential than any dead-tree product. If I’m lucky, they’ll hire me to work on it.

I imagine in five years there will be at least five more really great Lovecraftian RPG books, if none quite on a par with Masks of Nyarlathotep. I can confidently predict that the new Delta Green RPG will be one of them. Hopefully another of them will be by me. One or two A-list indie designers might create Lovecraftian story games – I’m surprised, as I say, that this hasn’t already happened. There will be a lot of forgettable, conventional-minded dross, most of which (thanks mainly to legacy structure from Lynn Willis and Keith Herber) will nonetheless have playable adventures. Kickstarter will be as normal as PDF sales are now; just a way most people do business.

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Here’s my wild prediction: At least one new-generation horror writer will try to increase mind-share and brand awareness by offering an open license (for tabletop, anyhow) to her portion of the Cthulhu mythos; the success of that scheme will depend on how good a writer she is and on how good her tabletop partners are.

CR: Thanks Kenneth … Are you willing to come back and answer some follow-up questions later on?

Kenneth: OK.

[ If you would like to contribute any follow-up questions for Kenneth, leave a comment or below or PM them to user “dce” on either Yog-Sothoth.com or rpg.net ]


A Second Lash at: Graham Walmsley

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When we interviewed Graham Walmsley (of Trail of Cthulhu, Cthulhu Dark and Stealing Cthulhu fame) a couple of weeks back, he had lots of intriguing and thought-provoking things to say about Lovecraftian gaming. He also had a wealth of well-considered things to say about publishing, and in particular small-press or self-publication of gaming material. We thought it would be great to get Graham back to answer another couple of questions about the intersection of these two topics … publishing Lovecraftian stuff.

Here’s what happened.

CR: Knowing Lovecraftian gamers, I would imagine that many readers would have, at one time or another, given thought to self-publication of their own-written material. As someone who has been more successful than most in establishing their own small press, what do you think are the key challenges to making a self-published book a success? Is it different for PDF publishing vs print publishing?

There are the practical things: playtesting, layout, art, printing. But those are fairly simple. (And, if people are looking to get started, I’m always happy to talk people through the process. I’d love to see more self-publishing.)

But the difficult part is finding an audience. What you must do, here, is engage with people: go to conventions, run your scenarios for people, get them excited about your stuff. Until you’ve got that excitement, you’re sunk.

Too many people write something on their own, then hope they can find an audience for it. That’s all wrong. You need to be engaging with people from the start.

CR: In talking about publishers engaging better with what’s happening with their games at the grassroots level, do you have any thoughts about ways in which companies can better tap into this (largely underutilized) source of product inspiration?

It’s funny. I rarely see publishers playing games at conventions. I genuinely don’t understand it. How can you find out what’s going on if you don’t play? So that’s the first thing: I think they should play more.

I’d also like to see projects originating from writers. When I’ve worked for larger companies, what has often happened is: they give me a brief and a word limit. I then write whatever they ask me to write. I’d like to see writers proposing projects.

And, to be fair, I’ve seen that happen, but I’d like to see more of it. There are such talented writers out there, with such amazing ideas. I’d love them to have more of a free rein.

CR: Well thanks for that, Graham … I guess we had better send the shoggoth off to catch some other poor unfortunate! You are free to go (but watch the Hound of Tindalos on your way out).


State of the Tentacle: Cynthia Celeste Miller

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When we kicked off the “State of the Tentacle” interviews, we deliberately cast a fairly wide net in relation to the types of Lovecraftian roleplaying games that were up for discussion. We didn’t just want it to be a discussion about where things are at with Call of Cthulhu — Lovecraftian gaming moved beyond the confines of just a single game some time back (when most of us weren’t looking!). There are now a whole variety of ideas out there about how the elusive yet enticing prose of Lovecraft can be translated to the gaming table, and ideally we would like these interviews to take in ALL of those different perspectives.

Introduction

Today’s guest interviewee, Cynthia Celeste Miller, is the creative force behind one of the more established of the “new crop” of Lovecraftian RPGs, Macabre Tales. Cynthia is the president of Spectrum Games, a company known specifically for faithfully emulating various genres with their game rules.

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For folks who have not dipped their toes to test the Macabre Tales water (and you really should) … it represents quite a different take on Lovecraftian gaming than either of the two major games, Call of Cthulhu and Trail of Cthulhu. For starters it prides itself not on being a “Cthulhu Mythos game”, but a “Lovecraft game” :sott-macabre-preview3 that means that a lot of the weird and wonderful (and sometimes slightly dubious) additions to the Lovecraft universe made by later authors such as August Derleth and Brian Lumley are simply not part of the game. In style it is a narrative-driven game (rather than a simulation-driven one) and it is specifically tailored to being run by a Keeper for a solo Investigator. Indeed, the default rules for the game assume there is only one player … the rationale being that almost all of Lovecraft’s stories feature a central narrator or character (who foolishly investigates things that man was not meant to know). But if you want to run Macabre Tales for more than one player, there are also some optional rules for doing that too.

One of the aspects of the game which is oft-talked about is its unusual central game mechanic which uses dominoes rather than dice as the mechanism by which the outcome of a challenge is determined. [And in case there’s any confusion whatsoever, we’re talking here about dominos the game pieces … not anything to do with pizza, although I guess you could eat pizza while playing too :-)]

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Each adventure specifically has a classic three-act structure and the game mechanics function slightly differently in each of the acts (to simulate the rising danger as the horror unfolds). When things get truly pulse-pounding the game’s “tension scene” mechanic kicks in delivering a short and suspenseful piece of action during which things can get more deadly again.

You can read a much more detailed description of the intriguing mechanics of Macabre Tales, as well as the features of H.P. Lovecraft’s fiction which inspired them, in this essay penned by Cynthia herself.

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In addition to their genre emulation of Lovecraft’s universe, Cynthia’s company also produces other games which aim to faithfully recreate other fictional genres: Superheroes, 1980s Action Cartoons, Slasher Movies, and (coming this year) 1970s Sci-Fi. You can find out more at Spectrum Games’ website or Facebook page.

Cthulhu Reborn: With over three decades of history to Lovecraftian Roleplaying, what do you see as the key milestones and mis-steps that have been made during its evolution?

Cynthia: The publication of Call of Cthulhu has to be considered the most important milestone, at least in my mind. That is the point where roleplaying and Lovecraft truly and fully melded into one tentacle-laden abomination. While other games may have contained some Lovecraftian entities and monsters, it wasn’t until CoC that an entire game focused on bringing H.P. Lovecraft’s lore to life. So, to me, that was the milestone.

sott-tremulus-logoAside from that, there have certainly been milestones of note, though mostly in terms of devising new ways to translate HPL’s work to tabletop gaming (e.g., Trail of Cthulhu’s ingenious use of clues and Tremulus story-driven approach, etc.). For so long, the RPG industry was content with mostly allowing CoC to be the final word in Lovecraftian roleplaying. In recent years, designers/companies have taken it upon themselves to add their own voices to the mix by releasing new Lovecraftian RPGs and I think that’s fantastic!

As for missteps, well, that’s a tough call. At the risk of seeming non-committal, I don’t feel that there have been any missteps of note. The way I see it, every designer has his or her own vision of what Lovecraftian roleplaying should be all about – whether it’s simply staying within context of HPL’s tales or adding major twists to the whole shebang (mechs, for example). There’s no right or wrong in this, so I can’t really say any of these things could be classified as a misstep.

CR: Given the many and varied publishers and product lines that exist in 2013 to support the hobby, what things do you think this “mini-industry” is doing well and what could be done better?

Cynthia: The fact that such a tiny niche within a niche is still thriving and growing exponentially proves, as far as I’m concerned, that the mini-industry is doing a lot of things right. For starters, a ton of Lovecraftian RPG material can easily be found, which is a huge plus. Another plus is that new material is being churned out every month. This persistence can only serve to keep Lovecraftian gaming alive.

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What could be done better? I would like to see more non-CoC Lovecraftian RPGs on store shelves. Many gamers (especially the more casual gamers who don’t haunt RPG websites) think that CoC is the only RPG of this nature and that, to me, is a shame. Not that CoC is a bad game or anything; it’s just that people should be aware that it’s only one of many options available for those wanting to channel HPL into their gaming activities.

CR: What do you see as the main factors shaping the direction of Lovecraftian RPGs right now?

Cynthia: It’s an exciting time right now, because more Lovecraftian games are hitting the market than ever before. Much of this stems from the fact that HPL’s work is becoming increasingly well known in popular media, creating more of a demand for such products.

I feel that designers are really asking themselves how to best translate Lovecraft’s style into game mechanics. This is certainly something I’ve noticed and I can’t stress enough how happy that makes me. It’s this line of thinking that leads to innovation.

CR: What do you see as the main challenges currently facing the continued prosperity/growth of the hobby?

Cynthia: The relatively recent surge of Lovecraft-based RPG products has a dark side. Many of these products are well thought out, laboriously researched and worthwhile products. However, as with anything, there has been a regrettable portion of less-than-stellar material being released. This is the nature of the beast, given that nearly anyone can publish products, due to crowdfunding, print-on-demand and PDF technology. The challenge publishers and designers face is to make their work stand out and thus rise to the top of the heap.

Image: Phil Slattery’s Art of Horror (wordpress)

CR: If it was up to you, where would you like to see the product lines of Lovecraftian RPGs (whether it’s the games themselves or their support products) go next?

sott-One-Shot-LogoCynthia: I would like to see a stronger emphasis on one-shot adventures rather than campaigns. I’m of the opinion that campaigns go directly against Lovecraft’s philosophy that humans are insignificant in the grand scheme of the cosmos. In his tales, the protagonists just weren’t that important. We weren’t meant to empathize with them and, in truth, they were little more than plot devices used so that the reader could experience these horrific concepts and entities. In a campaign situation, the spotlight is, by necessity, on the protagonists. It’s a chronicle of their continued exploits and I don’t think it conveys the Lovecraftian themes as well as one-shots do.

CR: Hypothetically, if you were to gaze into a crystal ball and look five years into the future of the hobby, what do you expect you’d see had changed in that time?

sott-giant-cthulhu-diceCynthia: With time becoming more and more of a precious commodity these days, I can see a move toward games that require little preparation – fast character creation, modular plot seeds, fast resolution, etc. In fact, this trend has already started to take hold. If pen-and-paper RPGs are to thoroughly prosper in the future, I believe this is the route that needs to be taken. In a day and age where someone can just sit down at a computer and immerse themselves in an MMORPG with zero prep time, we need to be able to follow suit, at least to some degree.

sott-cthulhufishAm I saying that MMORPGs are going to spell doom for tabletop roleplaying? Not at all. They are still two very different experiences. It’s like saying that hotdogs and hamburgers can’t co-exist. What I am saying is that we as an industry/hobby have to continue to evolve… and I think we are. If we stagnate and lose touch with the times, things could go very sour. Fortunately, I don’t see that happening.

CR: Thanks Cynthia for coming along to chat about the future of Lovecraftian gaming!


A Second Lash at: Dan Harms

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Of all the interviews we have run so far in the “State of the Tenacle” series, probably the one we have received the most feedback about is our chat with Dan Harms, renowned expert on all things Cthulhu Mythos. Spurred on by that interest, we were very eager to get Dan back in the interview seat for a couple more questions. We were lucky enough to grab a little bit of his time the other day … but there were so many questions we wanted to ask that we couldn’t pick just two. He is, after all, an interesting guy to quiz . . .

CR: You mention the Chaosium Monograph line as a “mis-step”, at least in its current form. Could you elaborate a little on what you think does and doesn’t work about this line … and can you see any way the monograph publishing system could work better?

Dan: When I say the monograph line is a “mis-step,” mind you, I’m basing it on what monographs I have read,  the reactions I’ve heard to the others, and my creative philosophy.  Maybe they make a good amount of money, and if so they’re a success from a business perspective.

In my experience, you should believe in what you’re creating, if you’re an author, an illustrator, a publisher, or a programmer.  That’s not to say it’s not possible to get by without it, especially if you’re talented, but bringing that perspective to a project always leads to its improvement.  When you’re just putting a product on paper and shipping it out, without really getting behind it, people will start becoming skeptical about that line as a whole.

To me, the place for a monograph series is between what you believe in and what can be marketed.  For example, someone could write a wonderful Gaslight sourcebook for Buffalo, New York.  No matter how great it is, it’ll always be a product appealing to a very small niche, which makes it suitable as a small-scale Print On Demand book rather than a general release.  If the sales reveal some interest, then the book can be expanded and published on a broader scale.

I do think there are products in the monograph line that meet my criteria – off the top of my head, Machine Tractor Station Kharkov 37, The Abbey, and The Parapsychologist’s Handbook.  It also includes those that simply don’t.

CR: You make the distinction between true innovation and simply “applying window-dressing” to the familiar genre conventions. Do you have any thoughts on ways that a designer might approach the development of a genuinely innocative product line? Do you need to completely throw out or challenge entrenched gaming stereotypes? Go back to literary sources to mine for other narrative voices?

Dan: I think to work with Lovecraft, you have to get back to his writing and accept its viewpoint as a baseline.  That means getting beyond the trappings and asking what the story says about the universe itself.  For example, Pathfinder includes Mythos creatures among its monsters.  Fighting them is probably fun, but their presence doesn’t equate to a Lovecraftian game.

Now, that doesn’t mean accepting an indifferent cosmos, necessarily; after all, Lovecraft’s tales of Randolph Carter are certainly not about that.  Yet if you’re not letting Lovecraft set the vision on a fundamental level, you either have a bunch of ideas thrown together because they’re neat, or you let the other elements set the tone, at which point you’re back to using the Mythos as a monster manual.

Does that mean we’re committed to rehashing Lovecraft again and again?  Certainly not.  The next question is how the genre, or the characters within it, act within that setting.  Both Delta Green and Bookhounds [of London] do that well, with Delta Green working to answer why the characters fight the Mythos, and Bookhounds asking whether it isn’t so bad every so often to make a pound or two off those terrors.  Some answers are easier than others – it’d be much easier to write Lovecraftian noir than Lovecraftian pulp or four-color superheroics – but that’s not to say it couldn’t be done.

I’d also encourage authors to think of this from a campaign perspective – how does that tone come through when the initial novelty of the setting wears off?

CR: One thing that featured heavily in early Call of Cthulhu products, but which has largely disappeared is gaming material themed around travelling to otherworldly or “Mythos” locations. Why do you think that exotic locales for Cthulhuoid adventuring have gradually been replaced by scenarios set in more mundane places, and is there a case for revisiting some of those outre places?

Dan: Why we don’t see more alien settings in Cthulhu games? They’re really hard to write about.  I wrote a chapter for Fury of Yig that used a classic HPL location as the setting.  Going in, I realized that I had to knock that chapter out of the park, or that I had to let it go.  It has to be genuinely unnerving and alien and significant to the plot, and that can be quite tough.  If other writers feel the same way, I’m not surprised they’ve decided to take their writing elsewhere.

image: brezelberg on deviantart

CR: You have a significant professional background in one of the themes that turn up frequently in Lovecraft’s fiction: old books.  How well do you think existing Lovecraftian RPGs embrace the way “eldritch tomes” are used in Mythos fiction? Have you ever tried anything different in your own gaming to better capture the Lovecraftian fascination with research?

Dan: Tomes are used very differently in Mythos stories than in the games.  In the works of Lovecraft and other authors, these books are treated as sources of information.  In Call of Cthulhu, they are rewards, insofar as they provide the Cthulhu Mythos skill and spells after the events of the session are over.   In addition, the adventures and campaigns have not been built to take them into account.  Even in a gripping long-term campaign like Masks [of Nyarlathotep], reading the tomes you find doesn’t tell you anything directly useful to your investigations.

A clear sign that this is a problem are the changes in the rules to get past it.  Back in the day, people would write scenarios with notes like, “Oh, most books take long periods of time to read, but this one only takes 24 hours.”  Later we got rules about skimming and reducing tome reading times, all of which are attempts to mitigate how those rules work.

My quick survey of the other Lovecraftian RPGs on my shelf (and it’s not a complete collection, I should add) is that everyone else treats them the same way, if not in terms of time, then in terms of benefits.  I think this is a major detriment, as it really makes tomes optional to the course of play.  You lose the element of characters saying, “The knowledge in these books is dangerous – but knowing it could be crucial to our struggles!”

Then, of course, you have Keepers who want to keep tomes and spells away from characters because it might make them too powerful.  I suppose you could do that.  In terms of genre emulation, it’s like deciding that soldier characters in a modern battlefield game shouldn’t have grenades and machine guns because they might derail the plot.

If you want to get a good idea of how I think tomes should be treated in games, I’d suggest picking up The Unspeakable Oath 21 and looking at Bret Kramer’s article on “Saucer Attack 1928!”  The tome is Bret’s inspiration, but the format comes from our discussions about how books should be used in the game.  Fury of Yig, when it appears, should give some examples of how they can be placed into a game.

I don’t know if the rules for handling tomes need to be more complex, necessarily, but it would be better if they or the scenarios were geared to encourage a player to behave like a character in a Lovecraft story.

CR: Dan … thanks so much for coming back and offering another great set of answers! Our tentacles are in your debt …


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